Gender Roles

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The title of a best selling book proclaimed that Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus. This title encapsulates the image that the two sexes are completely different and opposite to each other. Gender-role development is one of the most important areas of human development. In fact, the sex of a newborn sets the agenda for a whole array of developmental experiences that will influence the person throughout his or her life. Gender roles, norms and stereotypes play a pivotal role in the way men and women are raised and perceived, not only by parental and family figures, but also by society as a whole. The English philosopher John Locke (1632 – 1704) believed that we are all born ‘Tabula Rasae’, a blank slate that is written on by the pen of experience. Gender roles, influenced and enforced by society, can often determine how the pen of experience writes on our blank slate and how we develop into our male or female identity. Why are gender identification and gender roles so important in relation to human development? First and foremost, one's sex is one of the most salient characteristics that are presented to other people. Second, who one is as a male or a female becomes a significant part of one's overall identity; it is one of the first descriptors people use about themselves. Labeling oneself as a "boy" or "girl" can begin as early as age eighteen months. Third, gender is an important mediator of human experiences and the way in which individuals interact with each other and the physical environment. Individuals' choices of friends, toys, classes taken in secondary school, and vocation all are influenced by sex. Gender roles and stereotypes change throughout time, change from one geographical location to another and can shape our existing and future identity. Gender role adaptation and the affects of not conforming or adapting to gender roles, will ultimately affect the way the developing human perceives themselves, as either male or female. The word ‘gender’ is often used to refer to the social, cultural and psychological qualities of being male or female. The term "sex" denotes the actual physical makeup of individuals that define them as male or female. Sex is determined by genetic makeup, internal reproductive organs, the organization of the brain (such as in the control of hormone production), and external genitalia. Differences and variations in gender roles and what men and women ‘should’ be like occur over time and place. For example in Victorian England the mark of real femininity was a ladylike paleness and weakness, whereas in other countries, such as Kenya, real femininity is proven by a woman’s ability to undertake very hard and strenuous work on behalf of her family. During the Samurai Age of Japan, real masculinity was proven on the battlefield, where fiercesome warriors reigned supreme. Among other cultures, such as the Hopi Indians of North America, men were peaceful, passive and non-aggressive. Even as recently as the past few decades the roles and relations of men and women have been changing. In many Western nations many women have begun to do things that were considered exclusively for men, such as the work of doctors, tradesman, lawyers and university professors. Similarly men have begun to redefine fathering to include some of the ‘women’s work’ of feeding, diapering and otherwise caring for and nurturing children. Adrienne Burgess once said that: “Everyone always thinks of mothers and children. No one ever seems to realise that most men want to play just as big a parental role as women.”(Burgess, 1996, p212). Gradually over time men’s and women’s relations have started to become more egalitarian. So what has caused this shift of social norm? Society, in particular Western civilisations, have been changing rapidly over the last couple of hundred years. Pekacz quoted Jean-Jacques Rousseau Emile as saying that:

“Women’s entire education should be planned in relation to men. To please men, to...
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